One imprecise line of poetry brought Suzanne Steele from the fat rains of Victoria, B.C., to the searing moondust of Kandahar.
Three years ago, the poet read about the death of Corporal Anthony Boneca, a Thunder Bay reservist killed in 2006 near Kandahar city, and felt compelled to write an elegy.
"I had been away in the U.K. for a few years and, until then, didn't realize how involved Canada was in the war," she said. "As a poet, I just had to respond."
But her efforts stalled on the line "In fields of grape vines and hot white dust."
Nestled on the west coast of Canada, the poet didn't have a clue what the colour of dust was in Afghanistan. So she picked up the phone and called National Defence in Ottawa. That call would lead her down a path to becoming Canada first official war poet - a title that has largely ostracized her from the Canadian literary establishment.
"Accuracy in my imagery is very important," she said. "I had to get the colour right."
She had called Ottawa in search of a Forces veteran and was eventually introduced to a Victoria corporal who cajoled her to join the Canadian Forces Artists Program.
"I just looked at him and said, 'I'm not an artist, I'm a poet,'" recalls Ms. Steele, a telecom analyst before writing took over her life five years ago.
Officially, the artists' program launched in 2002, but it's roots go back to the First and Second World Wars, when Canadian painters and sculptors worked alongside troops to highlight both the inspirational and the horrific.
While there is a rich history of Canadian war poetry, Ms. Steele is the first poet to sign up for the program, which offers no financial incentive aside from free meals, accommodation and the protection of Canadian troops.
"They don't tell me what to write," she says. "It's not a propaganda thing."
She embedded with Delta Company of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, visiting the fledgling recruits every six weeks for 15 months as they grew from clumsy recruits to professional soldiers.
"I really watched Delta Company being born," she says.
That involved making chilly trips to Shilo, Man., and throwing on a burka during a mock-Afghan village exercise in Wainwright, Alta.
The zenith of that 15 months came two weeks ago when she stepped onto the tarmac of Kandahar Air Field for the first time.
For much of her time here, she did as soldiers did: riding in Taliban-targeted convoys; scurrying from a rocket attack; sleeping in tents; learning to make an IED; even waking at 4 a.m. to flip pancakes with army cooks - all to capture in verse an experience that many Canadians will never see and, in some cases, don't want to.
"I don't get invited to poetry festivals in Canada, but I do in the U.K.," she says. "One time I even had an angry Canadian poet get right in my face and say, 'Why the fuck are you writing about these guys?'" Over the course of her embed, she's learned that Canadian troops suffer the same reprimands: being shouted down in bars, insulted in conversation, misunderstood by family.
"This is part of what it means to be a Canadian soldier in this day and age," says Ms. Steele, who won't disclose her age but says she's well acquainted with the protest generation. "There's a certain denial of Canada's military tradition. Something happened during the Vietnam era where our military was tarred with the same brush as the American military."
And like so many troops, her decision to deploy roiled her family life. She logged hours quelling her family's fears - everyone except her 13-year-old daughter, that is, who was keen on her mom's adventure. "Forgive me," she writes in one poem. "falling in love with this. obsessed. eating, drinking, sleeping with war … my thoughts half a world away. on someone else's hardship. someone else's dismay."
Upon arrival, she was amazed at the responsibilities of war that turned baby-faced troops into "broken beautiful men" with "two-tour-old-guy-eyes in young man's skin."
She also writes of soldiers who, not wanting to lose their place in line, remain in Burger King and Tim Hortons lineups during rocket-attack sirens. "Fatalism," she writes, is the "second piece of kit the infantry arms itself with."
During convoys, she began to see the war through their eyes. "Everything became a potential danger," she says. "The nice old man with the wheelbarrow, for instance, could be a suicide bomber."
Many of her ruminations can be found online at warpoet.ca (33,000 hits and counting). These early efforts, she admits, can be a little rough, following the tradition of Rudyard Kipling, who also filed his share of uneven verse from the front lines of the Boer War.
"The immediacy is what matters," she says. "You have to get it out now."
Now that she's returned to Victoria, she's left wondering what will become of those men who shared so much of their lives with her.
"It's something people don't stop to consider," she says. "Here is a whole generation of troops - some of them going on three tours - who have spent their entire 20s at war. That's going to have an effect on them."
Her short stint overseas certainly had an effect on her. With so much material to work with, Ms. Steele is diversifying her talents from poet to playwright.
"Definitely, I'll get a stage play out of this," she said. "I've got a few publishers interested. People keep calling to ask where they can get my work. For me, it's too early to tell what different forms it will take on. There is a strange allure to war that is hard to express."
If nothing else, at least she got her line: "In fields of grapevine and hot dun dust."